My favorite historical person is George Armstrong Custer. My introduction to Custer came in the second grade when I first saw the movie, They Died With Their Boots On. Although highly entertaining, the film is steeped in myth and thus it naturally captivates the imagination. For Custer, the myth is inescapable, sometimes suffocating, but also motivating. The constant analysis of him and his story is something I find enjoyable. I certainly will not say, however, that he was perfect. Despite Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling portrayal, Custer was human and had many, many flaws. Through those issues there has been one thing that has stood out to me about Custer, which like the myth, is even more appealing.
Custer pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. His actions during the Peninsula Campaign and as a staff officer earned him an opportunity for advancement. At the same time, he was at a disadvantage. Prior to his promotion to Brigadier General in June 1863, he had not held a field command.
Custer also had not benefited from the tutelage of a senior officer. The two men closest to him at the time of his promotion were Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, head of the cavalry corps and his direct superior, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. Although Custer had served on his staff, Pleasonton had been more of a father figure to him. Pleasonton’s questionable intelligence gathering methods, one the primary responsibilities of the mounted arm were quite dubious. Although Pleasonton offered Custer advice to always fight his command and not himself, it is far from lending an expert hand. Kilpatrick’s rash behavior at Gettysburg and Falling Waters had probably kindled suspicion on Custer’s part. Whatever faith Custer had in him was gone by the end of the engagement at Buckland Mills in October, 1863.
Custer essentially had to teach himself and learn on the fly by watching others. In doing so, he later emerged as one of the more successful cavalry commanders of the war. He accomplished it through hard work and perseverance. This aspect of Custer’s life is only one of many elements which continue to draw me to his story.